Why Montreal wants you to visit in the winter

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Why Montreal wants you to visit in the winter

“This is one of those things where you’re not lying, but you’re kind of misrepresenting,” said Marchand, who wrote about the pamphlet for the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, where she works.

It’s a generous description of a season that is — let’s face it — cold, but the native Montrealer still recommends the city to visitors. “I think that Montreal is so beautiful in the winter, and there’s so much to do,” she said.

The largest city in Canada’s French-speaking province of Quebec, Montreal is best known for summer events such as the Montreal Jazz Festival and the Just for Laughs comedy festival. But the city also has a distinctive winter culture and an increasingly busy calendar through the colder months.

The season starts with a December winter festival, Montréal en Fêtes, in Old Montreal, the city’s historic district. Co-founder Martin Durocher says he and his brother wanted to create the kind of pop-up spaces that proliferate in the city in summertime. They created the “Place Nordique,” with fire pits and vendors selling mulled wine, as the setting for free activities that include live music, children’s story time and Zumba classes.

The final night of the nearly two-week festival is a New Year’s Eve party. Quebecois musicians take the stage for a free two-hour concert before fireworks at midnight. In 2017, when historically cold weather led Ottawa and Toronto to cancel their New Year’s celebrations, Montreal persisted despite below-zero temperatures with 92,000 attendees.

“Whether it’s a good year in terms of temperature or a bad year, people show up anyway,” Durocher said.

With the new year comes Igloo­fest, an electronic music event that bills itself as “the coldest music festival in the world.” Its 14th edition in 2020 will include outdoor concerts in January and February. Igloofest grew out of the summertime festival Piknic Électronik, which brings electronic music out of its usual club setting and onto outdoor stages. The winter edition draws between 2,000 and 10,000 spectators a night.

The event’s co-founder, Nicolas Cournoyer, said the real secret to staying warm is to get on the dance floor, which can measure more than 15 degrees Fahrenheit warmer than the outdoor temperature. You can also try the mulled cider or cocktails with whiskey and maple syrup.

For visitors too young for an electronic music festival, the family-oriented Fête des Neiges, or “snow festival,” also spans four weekends in January and February. The island Parc Jean-Drapeau hosts activities including ice skating and ice carving. While some festival offerings, such as introductory skiing and snowboarding lessons, are specifically for kids, “the activities can be appreciated by adults as much as children,” said the park’s Kaven Gauthier. The park, whose two-year renovation was completed this summer, sits on two islands that hosted the 1967 World’s Fair, Expo 67.

In February, the city celebrates its culinary scene with Montréal en Lumière. According to Jacques-André Dupont, president of the entertainment company Spectra, which produces Montréal en Lumière and the Jazz Festival, the event was created to counter the post-holiday doldrums.

“We decided to use some of the DNA of Montreal — which is the gastronomy or the great food and wine life that there is in Montreal — to have people get out and come down to Montreal and to see a lit downtown,” he said. Festival-long outdoor activities include light installations and a zip line through the city.

Food offerings from Feb. 20 to March 1 highlight local chefs, but the festival’s organizers have also brought more than 600 international stars, who collaborate with local restaurants on special menus.

One evening in particular has become one of the city’s largest annual events, drawing more than 300,000 people. On Nuit Blanche — which roughly means “all-nighter” — the Metro runs all night, and the city buzzes with energy. Montrealers stand in outdoor lines for special events, such as the flashlight-lit tour of the natural history collection at the Redpath Museum.

In addition to winter festivals, the city offers classic outdoor activities all season long. Visitors can ski and hike within city limits at Mont-Royal park, and Montreal is frequently used as a jumping-off point to plentiful outdoor activities throughout the province.

Nearly three-quarters of the world’s maple syrup supply comes from Quebec, and the province’s sugar shacks serve hardy meals of traditional Quebecois dishes generously dosed with maple syrup. Most of Quebec’s 200-odd sugar shacks operate only in March and April, coinciding with sugaring season, but a few, including the Sucrerie de la Montagne, west of Montreal in Rigaud, are open year-round.

The Montreal restaurant Au Pied de Cochon also operates a popular sugar shack in Mirabel, with an extended season from mid-February to early May. Reservations are usually snapped up within days of their release on Dec. 1, but visitors can follow the restaurant’s social media channels for cancellations.

Other events have joined the winter fray in recent years. Among them is the unorthodox winter sports festival Barbegazi, which is held in the shadow of Montreal’s Olympic Stadium.

Attendees at the March 2020 event — its name translates to “frozen beard” — can watch or take part in competitions including Christmas-tree throwing, snow skating and human curling.

As for beating the cold? Cournoyer says it just takes the right mind-set.

“There are no bad temperatures,” he said. “There are [only] bad winter clothing decisions.”

Where to eat

300 Chemin Saint-Georges, Rigaud

Find traditional Quebec eats 45 minutes from Montreal. All-you-can-eat lunch about $26; dinner about $35.

Cabane à Sucre Au Pied de Cochon

11382 Rang de la Fresnière, Mirabel

Sugar shack from chef Martin Picard of the popular Montreal restaurant Au Pied de Cochon. Reservations go fast. Meal from about $53.

What to do

Place Jacques-Cartier,
Old Montreal

Performances and art installations ending with a New Year’s Eve celebration. Open Thursday and Friday 4 to 10 p.m., Saturday and Sunday noon to 10 p.m. Outdoor events free; other ticket prices vary.

Jacques-Cartier Pier, Old Port

Electronic music festival featuring local and international artists over four weekends. Thursday 7:30 to 11 p.m., Friday to Sunday 7:30 p.m. to 12:30 a.m. Tickets from about $16.

Various locations in Old Montreal

Extended “restaurant week” offers reduced-price menus from 10 spots including a French brasserie, a wine bar and more. Dinner from about $19; brunch about $13.

Snow Festival (Fête des Neiges)

A family-friendly winter-themed festival. Open Saturday and Sunday 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. Tickets include entrance to all festival days; from about $9 adults, $6 kids. Ticket discounts available until Jan. 20.

Quartier des Spectacles and citywide events

Festival of indoor and outdoor food events and art installations, including free and paid events. Outdoor events free; other ticket prices vary.

Esplanade du Parc Olympique, 4141 Pierre-de Coubertin Ave.

Watch ax-throwing and other winter competitive sports. Check website for ticket prices.

Information

For the author’s full list of recommendations for Montreal, visit wapo.st/travel